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Groups criticize Presidential Commission’s recommendations on synthetic biology

Posted Dec. 15, 2010 / Posted by: KTrout

On December 16, 2010, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues released its recommendations on the oversight of synthetic biology, provoking strong criticism from public interest watchdogs for its failure to respond to key environmental and public health risks.

In a letter sent to the commission, 57 environmental, public interest, and religious groups from 22 countries criticized the recommendations as a deeply flawed response to advances in synthetic biology, including the creation this year of the first entirely synthetic organism, that demand strong federal oversight. 

In particular, the groups critiqued the recommendations for: ignoring the precautionary principle, lacking adequate review of environmental risks, placing unwarranted faith in “suicide genes” and other technologies that provide no guarantee against the escape of synthetic organisms into the environment, and relying on industry “self regulation,” which is the equivalent of no independent oversight.

The commission relies on the viability of suicide genes as a way to ‘contain’ synthetic organisms, but this technology cannot guarantee any level of environmental safety.  The precautionary principle must be implemented for the oversight of this new technology because its risks are impossible to predict. Once synthetic organisms escape into the environment, they will be impossible to clean up.

In framing its recommendations, the Presidential Commission did not treat seriously the threats synthetic biology poses to the environment and the impacts this technology will have on communities in the Global South. The recommendations do not adequately address the impact escaped synthetic microbes could have on ecosystems and ignore the impact synthetic biology could have on land use changes. The recommendations would allow all types of biomass to be used as feedstocks for synthetic microbes to produce fuels, chemicals, and plastics for wealthy nations.

Finally, it is disappointing that "business as usual" won out over precaution in the commission’s report. Allowing self-regulation equates to allowing no regulation. These recommendations give industry a free pass, while failing to ensure that the environment and public health are protected. The public needs stronger, more transparent regulation for synthetic biology, not less.

The letter calls for a moratorium on the release and commercial use of synthetic organisms until serious study of the full environmental, health and socio-economic impacts of this emerging technology has taken place.

The letter to the presidential commission from civil society groups can be read at: http://www.foe.org/sites/default/files/Letter_to_Commission_Synthetic_Biology.pdf

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